Drugs and the Law
October 10, 2002
Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, the United
States fought another brief undeclared war on Panama. The purpose was to
overthrow Manuel Noriega, the menacing Saddam Hussein of his day. He
was a truly depraved dictator, we were told, who wore red underwear and
smuggled drugs. By removing him from power the United States was going
to deal the international drug trade a lethal blow, just as (were
now assured) its going to smash international terrorism by
deposing Saddam Hussein.
Today Noriega is living
in a Florida prison, but the drug trade is still thriving. And the War
on Drugs, declared by the first President Bush, continues. Does
anyone care to draw lessons?
Sheldon Richman does.
Writing in Freedom Daily, the monthly of The
Future of Freedom Foundation, Richman points out that the War on Drugs
has been an utter failure, doing far more harm than good. Today, he writes,
[illegal] drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and cheaper than
ever.... The authorities cant even keep drugs out of prisons
which fact alone should end all argument. For all we know, Noriega
may be enjoying them in his cell right now.
If you doubt that man
learns from history, consider the obvious parallel: Prohibition. The
attempt to rid America of alcoholic beverages was another moralistic
crusade that backfired. It was chiefly a boon to organized crime. When
booze was outlawed, only Al Capone and Joe Kennedy could sell booze.
They, and men like them, controlled the huge illegal market Prohibition
created. And Prohibition was finally repealed. In the War on Alcohol, the
government finally had the good sense to admit defeat and surrender.
The government seems
determined never to do this again. Taking on impossible tasks and fighting
unwinnable wars give it a mandate for limitless power. It sees an illegal
market as an opportunity, even if victory is forever elusive.
Arresting one drug
dealer doesnt deter others or at least not enough of them.
The illegal drug market simply replaces them with hardier entrepreneurs
who are attracted by ever-growing profits and are willing to take the
risks of operating outside the law.
Richman explains how it works with an incisiveness
that can hardly be improved on:
There is one
key difference between a legal and an illegal market. In the latter a
premium is placed on skill at employing violence. In a black market,
normal security and dispute-resolution procedures are unavailable. So
justice is procured more directly. This offers an advantage
to people proficient in the use of physical force. The drug trade is violent
not because of drugs, but because of the war on drugs. If drugs are
outlawed, only outlaws will sell drugs. And outlaws tend to be not only
skilled but also uninhibited in the use of force.
Richman also points to
another difference between Prohibition and the War on Drugs. Advocates of
Prohibition realized that the Federal Government had no constitutional
power to ban alcohol; so they amended the Constitution, adding the
Eighteenth Amendment. But the Federal Government also has no power to
ban other drugs. This time, however, nobody has bothered to amend the
Constitution. The government has simply gone ahead and assumed
that is, usurped the necessary power, in simple contempt of the
Constitution. It has done the same with firearms, ignoring the Second
Ironically, as Richman
notes, the War on Drugs itself has made crimes with firearms a far more
serious problem than they ever were before. Conservatives who hate gun
control dont make this connection, and they usually support the
War on Drugs while trying to resist the pressure for gun control to which
it inevitably gives rise.
There is a lingering
notion that legalizing drugs would signify official approval of them. This
doesnt follow. It would merely mean that every individual would
have to take responsibility for his own conduct with drugs, as he does
with alcohol. Would this mean an increase in drug use and addiction?
Probably, though only a marginal one. No doubt the repeal of Prohibition
resulted in a marginal increase in alcoholism.
But just as repealing
Prohibition was a blow to organized crime, legalizing drugs would mean a
sharp decrease in violent street crime. And also a reduction of tyranny.
The War on Drugs itself has aggravated the problem of lawless